The Newsroom War on Terror

May 3, 2004

A specter is haunting the newsroom — the specter of deceit. And news bosses are getting jumpy.

They’re jumpy because the fuss over Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today gives the public another reason to distrust them.

They’re also jumpy because these scandals are costing people like them their jobs. Top editors at the country’s best and biggest newspapers were forced out.

And that’s really serious.

It’s also ironic. The media themselves have elevated these contemptible affairs into epochal events and insisted that heads roll.

This is a change. No Washington Post editors left in 1982 when the paper returned the Pulitzer Prize that Janet Cooke got for a fabricated story. Wall Street Journal bosses didn’t quit in 1984 when their most closely watched market columnist turned out to be a crook. In 1998 The Boston Globe simply fired its two star columnists; no editors were sacked. And the New Republic’s editor apologized but didn’t quit over Stephen Glass’ fictions.
Nor were there fervent calls for management reforms. Now, the cry is for stricter supervision, for more vigilant newsroom policing: spot-check expense reports and phone records, encourage reporters to denounce suspicious colleagues, tighten controls on how and what reporters do.
Referring to ethical lapses, Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. recently warned the American Society of Newspaper Editors: “Go back to your newspaper with the assumption that someone in your newsroom is doing these things.”
Why this fever — and is it good for the news?

Perhaps the change reflects a principled rededication to truthfulness, a high-minded determination to fix managerial deformities that enable wrongdoing to thrive. To some degree it does, and that’s good.

But why now? It’s not that things suddenly turned bad. Journalists are probably a lot more scrupulous than they used to be, less likely to misrepresent themselves, cut corners, bunk with sources, engage in petty corruption or invade people’s privacy.

Besides, by any measure, the sins of two egomaniacs are far outstripped by the media’s institutional failings in recent years — ignoring the rise of Al Qaeda, falling into lockstep in the march to war, soft-pedaling any number of simmering social issues — a serious level of ethical dereliction, unaddressed by executive-grade reformists.

So it’s not because of some epidemic of newsroom immorality that this crackdown is happening, or why the recent instances have gotten notoriety as what ethics historian Jeremy Iggers calls “officially recognized cases.”

The crackdown is an expression of big changes that are sweeping the news business, changes that have made news, more than ever, a business. A persistent obstacle to those changes is journalism itself — what journalists persist in calling their professionalism.

Professionalism is an elusive notion, but at a minimum it means journalists are not mere salaried information bureaucrats. They operate with a measure of independence and they exercise judgment, and they bring important realities before the public they serve.

Independent-mindedness and public crusading are a bit of a problem nowadays. It’s the age of market-driven news, in which editorial talent is diverted into producing targeted junk whose sole purpose is to gather a desirable sub-audience of consumers. Foreign bureaus have been shuttered. Local TV news is now highway body counts, good neighbor eyewash and school shootings. Radio news has vanished from commercial airwaves. Editorial spending goes increasingly not to unearth news, but to shift (“repurpose”) the same information from one medium (“platform”) to another, from print to web to TV promos.

The news business needs staff that understands that world, a malleable staff that doesn’t insist on trolling an uncertain demi-monde of non-official sources and street-level realities, that sticks to institutional beats that are cheap to cover — and easy for supervisors to monitor.

Hence, the latest newsroom frauds are useful. They exemplify the risks of straying from the prepared statement and the scheduled press luncheon.

But the paradox is that the supervisory vulnerabilities they’ve exposed are a problem only when reporters do precisely what they traditionally were supposed to do.

Thus have these bomb-throwers unleashed the equivalent of a war on terror within U.S. newsrooms. As with the real war on terror, the response is a mounting rollback of traditional rights and entitlements, in the name of security and public benefit.

And as with that other war on terror, the real costs won’t be clear for years to come.

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